The Waitsfield School Board has drafted a 2016-2017 budget which reduces spending by 7.1 percent.
The board met on January 18 to finalize the budget which will be brought to voters at Town Meeting in March. While the state Legislature continues to debate elements of the tax formula, including Act 46’s spending caps, the school board had to finalize the budget in order to meet the annual town report publishing timeline.
“In absence of finalized information from the Legislature, the Waitsfield School Board is continuing to make decisions that support high quality education, maintaining the standards of instruction that they have upheld for some time, while being responsive to the bottom financial line,” said principal Kaiya Korb.
The current budget draft (which can be found on the school website, www.waitsfieldschool.org, under the “School Board” tab) reflects a decrease in spending of $173,598, or down 7.1 percent from the current year’s budget.
The overall budget of $2,259,942 translates to spending per equalized pupil of $15,493, a figure higher than the 2016 state average of $14,423. Waitsfield's 2016 per pupil spending was $15,075 while neighboring communities had equalized per pupil spending that ranged from $13,607 (Warren) to $17,605 (Moretown).
While Waitsfield Elementary’s spending is decreasing, this per equalized pupil cost increase is the result of a decline in enrollment. It was in anticipation of this population decline that the board eliminated a classroom teaching position last budget season as well as another position the year prior; teacher staffing has been reduced from 18.24 positions in 2012 to 14.7 positions in the proposed budget. While the total number of students in the building hasn’t decreased significantly from last year, the drop of students in K-sixth grades (not preschool) impacts the calculation of equalized pupils. Class sizes in grades K through six average 15 students per teacher.
This past year, the state instituted Act 46, a cost containment provision that allows, statewide, for less than a 3 percent increase in per equalized pupil spending for the coming year.
“Spending containment measures have been part of state funding formulas for some time, but this shift in how the cost containment is calculated places a particular burden upon schools that have been working to stay close to the statewide per pupil averages, as those schools had an even smaller margin for increase,” explained Korb.
Waitsfield’s allowable growth at 1.5 percent per equalized pupil is less than the statewide provision allows. Previously, the spending threshold was calculated on a total amount spent over last year’s statewide average. Under the previous spending cap formula, Waitsfield never neared exceeding allowable spending.
“While the spending cap is still being debated in the Legislature, the school board determined that this version of the budget is the most sustainable. Should there be changes in the formula prior to Town Meeting, the board has the option to propose a different figure as an amendment at the meeting,” she added.
“While I appreciate the importance of keeping costs contained, there’s something that seems off kilter when a school that has been consistently making difficult decisions and reductions, keeping per pupil expense not far from the state average and adjusting staffing in anticipation of enrollment changes, is penalized. Other schools around the state are spending far more per pupil, but this spending cap calculation allows them to continue to do so without the penalty that is being imposed upon our school,” Korb added.
The proposed spending reductions are predominantly a result of shifting changes in student needs and include reduction of a special education teaching position, a paraprofessional position and contracted services. Currently special education needs at Waitsfield School are much lower than they have been past years.
“These needs could certainly shift in future years, these reductions are responsive to current level of needs. While these reductions bring savings, they are offset by a corresponding reduction in special education revenues from the state,” she noted.
Additionally, the budget reflects a decrease in the music teaching position, from full time to 0.6, a change that was made at the end of last school year and is operationally in effect this year, as well as a reduction of part of a technology support position, which is also operationally in effect this year.
At this week’s meeting, the school board made further reductions, eliminating a 0.5 percent contingency contribution, holding off on some technology purchases and delaying some planned building improvements to reduce the budget an additional $46,000. While these reductions are delaying expenditures the board felt are needed, these expenses were put on hold for a year to minimize the impact of the spending threshold penalty. The estimated tax impact of this budget is a 4.3 percent increase in Waitsfield education tax moving the estimated homestead tax rate to $1.60.
“Under Vermont law Act 46, if school board consolidation occurs, these spending caps and related penalties would be removed for the next several years. While the Waitsfield School Board is committed to adjusting staffing to match enrollment, consolidating to one district would provide more flexibility in responding to population shifts as well as reduce the tax impact of these shifts that can occur in a single school from year to year,” Korb said.
A study committee with representatives from all Washington West Supervisory Union (WWSU) school boards is currently investigating what a consolidation of school boards could look like. A vote on school board consolidation is anticipated in all WWSU communities in early May.
This year’s annual school meeting, where the budget is voted upon by townspeople, will occur at the new time of 4 p.m. on Tuesday, March 1, in conjunction with the new evening time for the annual Town Meeting.